Last spring I began to sense that I needed a break. I was feeling anxious and at odds with myself, and couldn’t figure out why. Maybe it was the seeming confusion and uncertainty of the local and national political scenes. Maybe I hadn’t accomplished all that I had hoped in the year to date. I didn’t question the sensation or try to go too deeply into the source of this frustration. I decided to simply acknowledge my feelings, respect my instinct, and make a plan to do something about it. But what?
On a morning early in May I was doing my usual Boston Globe cross-word puzzle. One of the clues was “park.” As I gradually filled in the blanks from the other clues the word “Yellowstone” emerged. The word didn’t benignly appear on the newsprint. It confronted my eyes as bold, screaming letters. “YELLOWSTONE!” That’s it! It was an omen, a sign. I immediately went to my computer, typed in “Yellowstone,” found a Road Scholar tour, and within minutes I signed up for a trip in September. After plodding through those months of tension I acted quickly and decisively. It felt good. With that done, I relaxed a bit knowing that I had something different to look forward to.
This decision wasn’t anxiety free. I worried neurotically that I would have trouble with the altitude in the Rockies and that my nasty sciatic nerve problem would crop up and prevent me from walking to all of the important sites. I wasn’t concerned about the traveling – I am fairly seasoned and know how to pack a small suitcase with the minimum amount of stuff to get me through.
So I headed to Montana dragging my apprehensions along with my roller carry-on luggage. I arrived in Bozeman and met up with my travel companions and guides. I had never been to Montana or Wyoming and was immediately stunned by the immensity and glory of the landscape. The description of this as “big sky country” is right on. Everything is big. Together, we set out to explore and learn. Mostly my time was spent as part of the group experiencing the vastness and wildness that surrounded us, and hearing from our instructors about the human history, geology, ecology, eco-systems, and what it was like to live as ranchers and farmers. It was wonderful to learn. The only part that was a bit uncomfortable for me was not having enough time to reflect in solitude. Then two opportunities presented themselves. Each of them lasted only a few minutes, but those moments of contemplation have stayed with me.
The first happened as I walked on a raised pathway around an area of mud pots. Mud pots are pools of boiling mud which look like the slowly simmering final cooking stage of chocolate pudding when the liquid creates thick bubbles that burst and make burp-like noises, except that the mud was pale ash grey and not deep, luscious brown. Our guide noted that in an extremely ancient time the only sound to be heard here was that of belching mud. Many millions of years ago, there was no life and no noise other than the incessant sloppy burp of erupting mud. I spent a few moments imagining what it would have been like to be in this place when there were no bears, elk, bison, and people – including tourists like me. Periodically now, I envision this primordial era. I place myself within it and try to shut out all noise. This image has a calming effect on me. Certainly it would have been lonely being there by myself, but the upside would have been not having to deal with the turmoil around me right now.
The second time of reflection came at Old Faithful. I watched the geyser spew its vapors on its regular schedule. But the special time for me was not during the geyser event, but while sitting in front of the Old Faithful hole in-between eruptions. People gathered in large numbers before the geyser was due to blow, but drifted away once the display was over and there were no voices to interrupt the silence. In that quiet interval I was able to ponder what I had learned about the astonishing geologic phenomena that cause geysers and that they were happening under the ground just beneath my feet.
Now that I am back to my normal routines, I realize two significant things. One is how important small spells of quietude are for me and how they give me the mental space to reflect on simple or grand notions. The other is not to be afraid. I did everything the trip offered. I managed in the thin Rocky Mountain air and had no problems with my annoying sciatic nerve. In fact, the walking seemed to improve my strength. I now have these two concepts – the importance of silence and letting go of fear. In addition, I have some visioning tools to soothe my spirit in troubling times.